Guest Post by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann: About Those Civilian Fatalities


Peter Bergen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation as well as the co-director of New America’s Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative, where Katherine Tiedemann is a policy analyst. This post was originally published at the AfPakChannel.
Scott Shane has a must-read in today’s New York Times about the possible expansion of the CIA’s program of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas to Baluchistan, the large and sparsely populated southern Pakistani province where the Afghan Taliban is headquartered.
Having written about the drones a bit ourselves, we read it with great interest and were struck by one of Shane’s anonymous sources, a government official who claims that the more than 80 drone strikes in less than two years have killed “more than 400” enemy fighters and “just over 20” civilians.
A study we conducted in mid-October, based on a careful analysis of the most accurate media counts of the strikes, found that between some 370 and 540 militants were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan since the start of 2008. There have been a few more strikes since the study was released, bringing the total of militants killed to between 384 and 578. So that’s close enough to be in the same range as the government official’s estimate of more than 400 militants killed.
What is troubling — and in our view, highly unlikely — is the official’s claim that only some 20 civilians have been killed by these drone strikes, a fatality rate of only around 5 percent. Given that one strike alone on the funeral of a suspected Taliban militant in South Waziristan in late June killed at least 18 people described as civilians, according to a report in the London Times, it seems implausible that only a handful more were killed in all of the 81 drone strikes that have occurred since the beginning of 2008.
The methodology by which the anonymous government official arrived at his conclusion of “just over 20” civilians and “more than 400” militants killed by drone strikes since the start of 2008 is unknown, but we worry that the official may be putting a good deal of spin on the figures about civilian casualties because of the unpopularity of the drone strikes in Pakistan; Pakistanis often complain that they not only violate national sovereignty but cause large numbers of civilian casualties.
Our own data shows that if we consider just the period from 2008 until the present, the average civilian fatality rate is between 35 and 40 percent; far more than the five percent claimed by the government official.
— Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann


14 comments on “Guest Post by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann: About Those Civilian Fatalities

  1. Paul Norheim says:

    Correction: “Nadine, you display your bias more OPENLY than most of us here – but
    still, you constantly accuse others of being biased.
    I`ll never understand why you think that this kind of activity makes sense at TWN.”


  2. Paul Norheim says:

    you say that it`s suspicious if a US citizen like Kathleen (I suppose she is an American)
    shows some concern regarding the death of civilians that America is directly or
    indirectly responsible for?
    You accuse the left of bias in this regard. Would you say that you show less bias by only
    counting dead civilians that can be blamed on the enemy? Do you somehow imagine that you
    have credibility while accusing your opponents of being biased?
    Above, you admit that “while government estimates are likely to be very inaccurate, media
    estimates are likely to be no better, only in a different direction.” Well, that would be
    fine if you admitted that the “inaccuracy” also applies to, say, the government of
    During the last decade of the cold war, I didn`t trust in the accusations of human rights
    violations coming from the West or the Communist states. I listened more to independent
    organizations like Amnesty International etc, whether the issue was abuses in South
    America or Eastern Europe, in USA or in China. And the historical documents later proved
    that organizations like Amnesty were much more accurate than the propaganda from both
    sides. I recommend this method.
    But you would never do that, would you, because you are involved in a propaganda war
    where accurate and unbiased information is completely irrelevant?
    And you think that if you repeat the accusation that your opponents are biased hundred or
    thousand times, we get so sick of hearing it that we start to believe that you are
    If you accuse others of being biased, one may think that it would make some sense to make
    an effort to appear less biased than your opponents? But you don`t even care to fake
    “objectivity”. You display your bias more than most of us here – but still, you
    constantly accuse others of being biased.
    I`ll never understand why you think that this kind of activity makes sense at TWN.


  3. nadine says:

    Kathleen, get off your high horse. YOU don’t count the death of civilians unless you can blame them on America, which you do once America is remotely involved no matter who presses the trigger. When the Taliban took Mazar el Sharif, they slaughtered 5000 civilians….to the Taliban the Hezara don’t count as Muslims so they deserved to die. Did you count that? Did you even hear of it?
    I get so tired of this pretense that the Left cares about civilians. Only if the “right” people kill them do they care, otherwise they could care less, no matter if the death toll enters the millions.


  4. Kathleen says:

    This spin is not surprising since Americans “don’t count” the deaths of civilians killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Pakistan.
    The whole world knows this and have every reason to be pissed off. Most Americans could give a rat’s ass about the brutal and unnecessary deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan more than likely Iran due to the neo, theo, oil cons expansionist war games going on.
    These warmongers know that most Americans are busy filling their tanks, pressing their pedals to the metals driving to the malls to buy silk and plastic shit from American and multinational corporations produing their shit in China. Come on the American people do have their priorities.
    And the deaths of innocent people caused by the U.S. wars of choice is of no concern to most Americans. That is the brutal truth


  5. Hillarygoawayalready says:

    don’t worry your pretty little head too much cwolf, the administration’s top war-monger SoS Hillary and her generals have shoved war down the throats of Obama and the American people and our allies. Yipeee….we have a surge of precious lives and needed money being dumped into AfPak. And before you start, the surge in Iraq did not work after the initial bandaid. Not worth the lives and money for that bandaid you say? Perhaps Hillary’s constant sabre rattling will save using some of those pesky drones over the next umpteen years. She may even get us into a few more wars…what the heck. An added bonus are the anticipation of a rainbow of pantsuits coming down the pike.


  6. cwolf says:

    Drone Attacks are the most cowardly method of murder ever conceived.
    Fuck obomber and his colonial wars


  7. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    The Pakistan military has been trying its level best to make the military offensives against the militants( as has been glaringly evidenced by the ongoing military operation by the Pakistan army against the militants in Waziristan);yet those_ who think that the military action can pave the way for the extermination of terrorism _seem to have been believing in making prints on water(an idealist paradigm), this is a war against an ideology of “ignorance and illiteracy” how may it be possible to fight against an ideology by force can bring the perceived results. Therefore, a multiple strategy of defense, diplomacy and development( the methodology of smart power doctrine) can be the right course to adopt in this direction.


  8. samuelburke says:

    over at pat langs website there is this…
    “The neoconservative goal is to exploit the traditional language
    of COIN to justify deploying as many US soldiers as possible to
    Muslim land. Moreover, neoconservatives believe that it is
    extremely important that the Muslim world view neo-COIN as an
    occupation, much in the same vein as the IDF. Western
    occupation of Muslim land writ large.
    As Bibi said after 9-11, “We are all Israelis now”. That is the
    neoconservative goal. It is stated, admitted, and on the record.
    Once Israel launches a pre-emptive strike against Iran (with or
    without the USM, doesn’t matter), then those US soldiers
    deployed in Muslim lands will act as a buffer to Israel actions, as
    Iran will strike out against the USM in Iraq, Afghanistan, and
    elsewhere. Then the USG will carry out the goal of Likud
    Zionism, which is the inverse of the title of Gant’s article. The
    goal of Likud Zionism is to destroy one tribe at a time, under a
    Jacobin approach. How can such analysis be wrong?
    Yet, no one at the Pentagon will say one word and, God forbid,
    certainly not under their own name. Why not? Why is the
    Pentagon standing up for Fred and Kim and not Gant? Yeah, we
    know the answer.
    It just whispers in the mind. Hate to say it, but the same
    whispers occurred in the early 1970’s, among the Scot Irish,
    African Americans and others. I saw it firsthand, at least in the
    South. And I am not talking about the Jane Fonda crowd,
    because they hated her too.
    Petraeus and the other generals do not understand. They are too
    isolated from the real world, just like Jeffery Goldberg, James
    Woolsey, and others. I think the brainier neoconservative
    Jacobins do understand, and they will successfully exploit to
    their advantage the rising anger of Americans that will occur in
    the chaos after an attack on Iran.”


  9. bob h says:

    Of course, this whole issue would be moot if Pakistan moved more forcefully and effectively against the militants.


  10. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    The question of civilian fatalities does resurrect the conscience/morality of the international community-perhaps being a silent spectator-has no answer to the problem that the hapless Afghan and Pakistani community has been facing since the war trumpeted in the region eight years ago.


  11. samuelburke says:

    “People in the West are dreaming. If you ask anyone in Afghanistan
    what the US can do for the country, they will start laughing at you.”
    ~ Helmandwal, an elder in SE Afghanistan who buried four relatives
    last month he believes were killed by NATO bombardment.
    [Financial Times, 12/3/09, pg. 2.]


  12. Kristie Mansfield says:

    All meaning from those numbers have been massaged out of
    existence. If the war is really in Pakistan, how come so many are
    dying in Afghanistan. Isn’t this called AfPak?

    Despite the increased caution, 1,013 Afghan civilians were killed in
    the first half of 2009, according to the UN, up from 818 for the
    same period of the previous year. Almost half died in American air


  13. nadine says:

    While government estimates are likely to be very inaccurate, media estimates are likely to be no better, only in a different direction. Averaging inaccurate media accounts doesn’t make them any more accurate. It’s not like polls.


  14. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Bergen and Tiedemann should be very careful penning essays such as this one, as it jeapordizes any chance they may have of cashing in on the Message Force Multiplier media slush funds.
    Are we to be suprised by this??? Gee golly, you mean our government would actually lie to us about the numbers of civilian casualties? It would be interesting to know which lyin’ piece of shit “anonymous source” in the government provided Shane with these blatantly fictional figures.
    Just one more example of the kind of “change” this posturing fraud Obama is delivering to the people. But hey, what should we expect? If they are willing to sideline, erroneously discredit, and ignore the Goldstone Report, why should we expect them to be honest about our own role in slaughtering innocents?
    Just wait until someday in the distant future, when the TRUTH is known about the effects of DU on the environment and innocent civilian’s health and genetic well being. Theres more than one way to kill Muslims. Already, in Iraq, pockets of high rates of birth abnormalities are showing up. But fear not, the same bastards that denied the effects of Agent Orange deny the effects of DU. I’m sure we can take their assurances to the bank, eh? After all, the DOD would never lie to us, would they??? Maybe we should ask the Tillman and Lynch families.
    20 dead civilians in Pakistan so far. Right.
    They must think we’re effin’ idiots. And apparently, judging by the way we’ve bent over these last nine years, we are.


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